For some reason, an increasing number of writers seem surprised to discover that environmentalists are anti-technology.
Last week, Josh Barro excoriated “coalitions of NIMBYs and Malthusian environmentalists working together to block the transmission lines we need to bring clean electricity to major cities so we can burn less coal and natural gas.”
“Faux environmentalist Left-NIMBYism is emerging as a substantial threat to decarbonization,” as Bloomberg economist Noah Smith recently put it.
These critiques are well deserved by the institutional environmental organizations blocking clean energy infrastructure. But they share one major flaw. Environmentalism has not been corrupted by “Malthusian environmentalists,” its aims “weaponized” by NIMBYs who take anti-technology stances in conflict with environmental goals.
Quite the contrary, environmentalism is Malthusian and anti-technology to its core.
Consider the so-called IPAT formula, which has been used for decades to illustrate environmental impact:
Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology
In this formulation, population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T) are definitionally bad for the environment. It’s an analytically powerful tool, used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to decompose the drivers of global carbon emissions into population, wealth, energy intensity of the global economy, and carbon intensity of global energy supply.
IPAT suggests a stark tradeoff between human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. And while it’s true that larger populations and greater wealth have been associated with ecological devastation, this assumption also reflects the ideology of one of the IPAT formula’s creators: Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb and probably the most prominent living Malthusian. Ehrlich famously predicted widespread overpopulation and death from famines (both of which never came to pass) and advocated coerced sterilization campaigns in Asia and elsewhere.
Another of the formula’s creators, Barry Commoner, an early proponent of “limits to growth” and the concept of “sustainability,” argued that “the environmental crisis is somber evidence of an insidious fraud hidden in the vaunted productivity and wealth of modern, technology-based society.”
If you think these are archaic, fringe views, consider the third and final creator of the IPAT formula: John Holdren, founder of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and chief science advisor to President Barack Obama.
Even beyond IPAT, anti-technology, anti-growth, anti-humanist thinking was the rule, not the exception, among the originating thinkers of environmentalism. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and the unofficial founder of modern environmentalism, wrote that “chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world, the very nature of its life." David Brower left the Sierra Club to found Friends of the Earth because the Club demonstrated insufficient opposition to the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California (which Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and, yes, the Sierra Club are all still trying to shut down today). The Brundtland Report, the foundational text of sustainable development, concluded that “a low energy path is the best way towards a sustainable future.”
Perhaps these views were more understandable in the postwar economic boom, the infancy of environmental scholarship, and the abrupt arrival of whole new classes of technology in energy and food systems. . The 20th century was, in relatively short order, rocked by accelerating population growth, rapid “catch-up” economic expansion all over the world, booming dense cities, and previously unimaginable technological achievements, like organochloride pesticides, nuclear radiation, and transgenic modification. The environmentalist overcorrection was, if not defensible, comprehensible.
Today, we know better. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers tend to produce less pollution than their organic alternatives. Nuclear power generates enormous quantities of emissions-free electricity with a minuscule land footprint while imposing the lowest public health impacts of any major energy technology. Genetically modified organisms make croplands more resilient and allow farmers to grow more food on less land. Large, dense cities reduce the footprint of human populations and the pollution associated with transportation.
All this is true because, for all its apparent explanatory power, IPAT is reductive.
Technology can be the cause of environmental problems, as with greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, or it can be the solution, as with the deployment of non-emitting nuclear reactors and solar panels. Affluence can drive excessive consumption, but affluence also drives efficiency, dematerialization, and, as it turns out, declining birth rates, pushing the P in IPAT downward. And of course, while more humans do cause greater impacts, humans can also help address and manage environmental problems.
In summary, the variables in IPAT can be either positive or negative, and can interact with each other, in ways that Ehrlich, Commoner, and Holdren did not capture with their original formula.
The urgency of global climate ambitions has prompted some self-criticism inside modern environmentalism, which was constructed before the problem of greenhouse gasses was widely recognized.
These upstart attempts to reform the priorities and institutions of conventional environmentalism mostly lead to a merely partial reconstruction of the core philosophy. Anti-technology, except for solar panels and electric heat pumps. Anti-growth, except for dense, transit-oriented cities in rich countries. There is pragmatic, salutary work to be accomplished by these efforts.
But I predict that, without a more comprehensively reconstructed environmentalism, they will fall short, at both reforming the institutions that comprise the environmental movement and, indeed, at addressing environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss.
A more fully reconstructed environmentalism would embrace technology, not just the aesthetically acceptable “small-is-beautiful” ones like rooftop solar panels but the more conventionally industrial ones like nuclear power plants and combine tractors. It would seek to accelerate, not dampen, economic growth, as a driver of human wellbeing and ecological decoupling. It would harness the tools of scientific discovery instead of spurning them, as latter-day environmentalists have with alternative proteins and carbon removal.
It would, in short, look a lot like ecomodernism. The authors of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” published it last decade to outline an affirmative, coherent alternative environmental metaphysics. One impetus for doing so was the shared realization that simply tinkering around the edges of institutional environmentalism was a losing proposition.
Perhaps ecomodernism is not your cup of tea. But then, if your goal is to address climate change, I would urge you to demonstrate a more effective reform effort within the institutions of contemporary environmentalism than has taken hold to date. Until that point, to describe environmentalism as “Malthusian” or “anti-technology” will remain as redundant as it has always been.